No sports entity is better at generating storylines than the National Football League, and Sunday's playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium is Exhibit A.
Ray Lewis' last dance, Chuck Pagano's return to the sideline and the Colts' return to Baltimore provide so much textured backstory that it's almost a shame the teams have to kick off and actually play.
But of course, the game is what matters in the end, supersedes all. Come Sunday, the many rich plot lines will recede in favor of the standard machinations of football itself. As always, blocking, tackling and X's and O's will take over and determine who wins.
I'm aware football issues pale as talking points compared to the real-life and soap-operatic elements elevating the game, but those issues are getting such scant attention in the run-up to Sunday that, hey, I'm feeling sorry for them. So on their behalf, in the interest of equal time, here are five (football) questions that (oh, by the way) will determine Sunday's outcome:
Can the Ravens pound on the ground? [
The Ravens' path to victory is clearly illuminated. They have Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. The Colts had the NFL's fourth-worst run defense during the season, giving up 5.1 yards per carry and more runs of 20-plus yards than any team. There's your sweet spot right there. Only the Colts have shown the capacity to make key stops, led by linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who piled up 215 tackles during the season. And the Ravens have been known to forget to ride their running game, resulting in it falling out of the top 10.
The Ravens were ranked in the bottom four in the league in time of possession, but their ability to control the clock for a change is crucial Sunday.
Can the Colts pass protect?
They don't have much of a running game (No. 22) and most NFL defenses can feast on one-dimensional opposition. But Colts quarterback Andrew Luck threw for more yards than any rookie in NFL history. He is able to deliver big strikes and take over a game. But he was also sacked 41 times (six more than Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco) and pressured into throwing 18 interceptions (eight more than Flacco).
The fact that the Ravens are going to be able to move the ball doesn't guarantee them anything if they can't stop Luck. Putting pressure on him is the way to checkmate him, and the Ravens' pass rush has played well lately, almost doubling its sack output in the second half of the season compared to the first half. A strong rush, or lack of one, could be decisive.
Who starts fast?
Both teams will open the game riding emotional waves, but only one can gain the early upper hand, and the other will find itself at a susceptible crossroads once it grasps that its pregame fever pitch was, well, quite possibly irrelevant.
It is tempting to say the Colts are more vulnerable in this scenario because they're a young squad of players largely new to the playoffs, but imagine the chill on the Ravens' sideline if they fall behind shortly after their "Willis Reed moment," Lewis' last dance. Better to take that early lead.
What game does Flacco bring?
I'm not about to dispute the popular assessment that the Ravens will go as far as their quarterback takes them. It's obviously crucial that he makes plays.
But in this matchup, with the offensive blueprint expected to focus on the running game, Flacco really just needs to be solid rather than spectacular, moving the chains on third downs without reprising the errors that plagued him in December.
Who is in a giving mood?
The Ravens led the NFL in penalty yardage this season, a title that surely bothers Head Coach John Harbaugh. The Colts, meanwhile, ranked among the league's least penalized teams, averaging 20 fewer yards per game than Baltimore.
But on the other hand, the Colts had a minus-12 turnover ratio while the Ravens were in positive double digits for most of the season before finishing at plus-9. It's a key stat for them. They won nine of 11 games in which they had a positive or even turnover ratio, and were 1-4 when losing the turnover battle. Sorry to introduce football into the equation … but I felt the need.